Trump Administration Refuses to Tighten Soot Pollution Regulation Linked to Higher COVID-19 Death Rates

By Arun Balaji, Kaushal Kumar, Kunaal Venugopal, and Sudhit Rao

On Tuesday, the Trump administration decided not to tighten soot pollution regulation despite there being a possible link between soot pollution and higher COVID-19 related deaths. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes that there are “still a lot of uncertainties” on the potential relationship and have decided “that the current standard is protective of public health.” 

COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, is a disease that causes respiratory illness. Its effects as a global pandemic have been realized the most following February of 2020, but its origins trace back to November of 2019 in Wuhan, China. Its consequences have sent a ripple throughout the world as it has caused thousands of deaths across the globe as lockdowns have been set in place. What’s more, many factors can influence the spread of the virus.

What does soot pollution have to do with this?

Soot pollution is a common name that refers to black particulate matter, or “particle pollution” which is the outcome of combustion processes in oil refineries, industrial boilers, and manufacturers. Though the pollution caused by these particles is linked to about “45,000 deaths a year,” the EPA still has not introduced reforms to decrease soot pollution. Moreover, in relevance to the prominent COVID-19 pandemic, an independent Harvard study concluded that areas with higher levels of soot pollution had higher coronavirus death rates. With the respiratory illness implications of the novel coronavirus including but not limited to bronchitis and pneumonia, soot pollution is accelerating the development of these illnesses.

The EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who was appointed by President Trump in early 2019, was the deciding factor of the denial. Wheeler justified his claim by stating the Harvard study was too new and was not properly vetted or peer-reviewed to be considered in the decision to tighten the pollution standards. Wheeler also attacked the scientists behind the Harvard study claiming that they “seem to have a bias,” because they have publicly spoken out against the choices of the Trump Administration in the past.  

This decision came as a shock to many, as Harvard studies have frequently been used as key factors in the EPA’s decisions and over the years and have prompted them to tighten the standards consistently. 

The EPA’s choice had a very polarizing response. In a letter to Wheeler on Tuesday, a group of 18 Democratic and independent senators blasted the decision. They explained, “The Environmental Protection Agency should be taking actions that will further protect health during this crisis, not put more Americans at risk.” On the other hand, large oil and gas companies and many Republican Lawmakers praised Wheeler for his decision, claiming that the choice would help energy companies survive and bounce back from their struggles during the economic collapse that came with the pandemic.

Clearly, the EPA’s decision was very controversial. The Trump administration is under heavy fire especially with the mounting concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their refusal to tighten regulations allows soot pollution to remain a problem, leading to unforeseen consequences in terms of public health. Soot pollution, more than just influencing a virus, is unhealthy for our climate crisis as well. The situation must be addressed soon by future government bodies or it will be too late to reverse the effects.